Where Is The ECAC Headed?

Joe Bertagna believes it when he says he works for all of college hockey. He believed that when the ECAC was signing his paychecks, and he believes it now that he is the commissioner of Hockey East.

People who believe that ECAC hockey is a glorious conglomerate of 12 teams — worthy of praise over ridicule, admiration over indifference — had better hope Bertagna doesn’t forget his friends in the ECAC. And not the friends from the home office on Cape Cod, but the coaches and the hockey programs themselves.

That’s because the ECAC’s hockey programs need his help, and that of many others. Help they are not getting under their current administrative structure. Help they must get, or else slip into a background that would make the perception of the ECAC as a weak sister become a reality.

Help they may only be able to get by leaving.

When Bertagna was allowed to leave as the commissioner of the ECAC after 15 years of service, it sounded a troublesome alarm. At first Bertagna played it cool publicly, saying he just thought Hockey East was a better situation for his family. But beneath the surface was indicated the ECAC’s continued unwillingness to recognize that men’s ice hockey is the sport that butters its bread.

With those worries already in place, we waited for the naming of a new commissioner. A respected coach perhaps, like a Joe Marsh, or a former player with a background like Hobey Baker winner Lane McDonald. Those were the guesses, not that those guys actually applied.

The naming of 26-year old Jeff Fanter in July raised a lot of eyebrows and confirmed some suspicions — the ECAC administration has no concept of the importance of hockey, and the chance it has — if done right — to keep up with the other three conference powers.

Fanter is a hard worker and a good guy. He is organized and has the chance to grow into the job, and he’s sincere when he says he’s fallen in love with hockey. But, to be honest, if Fanter had applied for the commissioner’s job at any of the three other conferences, with a total of two years experience in hockey (as an assistant SID at Colgate), he would have had no chance of being hired. WCHA commissioner Bruce McLeod has been an athletic director; CCHA chief Bill Beagan is a longtime hockey guy with a lot of years as a referee; Bertagna is a former Harvard goalie, Boston Bruins goalie coach, head of the American Hockey Coaches Association and director of a popular goaltending camp.

Even Jack McDonald, who spearheaded the creation of the new MAAC hockey conference, is an athletic director at Quinnipiac whose family has been in hockey for years, and a former athletic director at the University of Denver.

Consider the job description posted for the soon-to-be-vacant CCHA commissioner’s position:

“Responsibilities include oversight and management of: a) league finances; b) activities of staff members; c) playing schedules; d) CCHA and college ice hockey promotion on a regional and national basis; e) a television contract for the league and its members; f) the league’s policies and procedures as outlined in the CCHA Code of Regulations and Articles of Agreement; g) all league meetings (prepare necessary reports, materials, minutes, lodging, meals, etc.); and h) other duties as assigned by the CCHA Executive Committee. The Commissioner is the league’s primary liaison with other ice hockey organizations, NCAA, corporate sponsors and partners, and media representatives. The Commissioner works directly with a small support staff.

The CCHA is seeking candidates who possess superior leadership, management, and collaborative skills, and the vision needed to enhance the CCHA’s premier leadership role in collegiate ice hockey. Minimum Qualifications: bachelor’s degree with significant experience in intercollegiate athletics administration or related managerial field. Knowledge and experience with intercollegiate ice hockey as an administrator, coach or student-athlete is desirable. Demonstrated marketing, promotions, public relations, and event management; television and media relations; strong interpersonal, organizational and supervisory skills; effective oral, written and automated communications are preferred; and commitment to intercollegiate athletics and academic integrity are required.” (Emphasis mine)

Colgate athletic director Mark Murphy and head coach Don Vaughan made the big push for Fanter, having worked with him from 1993-95, and I respect both of those men very much.

But the questions are numerous. Were there other strong candidates? Is this an indication that ECAC higher-ups, John Garner and Clayton Chapman, really are the ones who want to pull the hockey management strings and make Fanter a de facto ECAC SID only? Did the ECAC just show yet again the reason why it has a hard time being taken seriously?

The ECAC reportedly interviewed John Weisbrod, a former player and current Executive Vice President and Director of Operations for the Albany River Rats, a very successful AHL team. Another known applicant was former Harvard hockey SID Mike Jackman. Perhaps Jackman wasn’t qualified by CCHA standards, either, but he graduated from Princeton and spent five years as a hockey SID in the league. He wasn’t interviewed.

Fanter, a graduate of Indiana, spent the last two years at his alma mater. He has always been good with his publications and publicity. But does he have what it takes to go toe-to-toe with people like Bertagna, McLeod and Beagan?

As one longtime ECAC devotee said, “When (Cornell coach) Mike Schafer gives it to a referee, is Fanter going to be able to call and tell him to cool it?” Will Fanter have clout within the league? Does the league hierarchy want him to?

Did the ECAC use hockey-playing schools solely on the search committee? Of course not. Included on the committee, in addition to Murphy, were the athletic directors at Tufts and Adelphi.

Garner acknowledges the concerns of others, but affirms Fanter as a solid choice.

“It’s probably a legitimate concern,” Garner said. “He holds his own. He’s energetic. From a public relations standpoint he’s great; administratively he’ll have to learn. Learning comes with maturity. He’ll also have the ECAC commissioner (Chapman) here to bounce things off of, and [12 ECAC] athletic directors.

“He has energy, enthusiasm and vision.”

Fanter has been okay so far, working out an agreement with the New England Sports Network to carry additional ECAC games this year. The ECAC already had an agreement with the Empire Sports Network, only seen in upstate New York and on satellite systems, but when NESN dropped Hockey East, Fanter seized the chance to get them into the ECAC fold. NESN doesn’t have to worry about as much production cost, and it was worth it to them.

“The guy’s doing a quality job,” said Mike Schafer. “He’s earned the coaches’ respect.”

“I supported him,” said Vaughan. “He’s strong in marketing and pretty creative. He’s super-organized. He’s young, but he’s way ahead of his years. There’s no concern where our league is at from the hockey end.”

But this was never about Fanter anyway. No one’s blaming him. Heck, I shouldn’t be hired for the commissioner’s job either, but if someone offered it to me, I might take it.

So let’s not lose sight of what the issue is — that the ECAC hierarchy just doesn’t get it.

No one in Centerville will admit it, but the departure of Bertagna and the hiring of Fanter smells a lot like a power play on the part of the ECAC administration. It looks very much like the ECAC higher-ups wanted to have more control over hockey, and therefore purposefully downsized the hockey commissioner’s role (despite the pretense of naming the first full-time commissioner) and instead hired what is in essence an ECAC hockey Sports Information Director.

It’s not like the ECAC doesn’t have a history of backwards thinking.

Listen to Bertagna, and the frustration in his voice:

“I asked the ECAC for a full-time assistant or to absolutely change things,” he says. “I was a little naive. I thought that I’d established myself so much that I would get a lot of the things that I asked for.

“But they did an internal study of how we did things, and concluded that the problem wasn’t that I didn’t have any help. The problem was that we had two offices. If I moved down on the Cape and used their staffing, the problems would go away. Well I wasn’t going to move after 15 years.

“And to be very blunt, they had this huge office, but some of the people there were not assets. They didn’t know hockey. They were upset that hockey was getting preferential treatment. I said, ‘It’s because it’s the only sport that raises the ECAC flag at a national level and makes money for you. You guys should bow down and give hockey the extra attention. No one else cuts you a check like the hockey tournament in Lake Placid does.'”

Internal study? Does that sound like government bureaucracy at its finest, or what?

If Bertagna wasn’t able to get things done there, what makes anyone think Fanter will be able to? The answer is: The ECAC doesn’t want Fanter to. The higher-ups will try … and fail. Or, even more scary, they don’t care to try.

The ECAC as a concept is a complete dinosaur. Not the hockey conference, but the conference as a whole. In other sports, the member schools don’t answer to the ECAC. They have their own conferences, and the ECAC just chooses players of the week and hosts some postseason tournaments. Hockey is the only sport where the ECAC has any jurisdiction. It’s also the only sport that makes them money.

The ECAC remains the only major hockey conference with a hierarchy above hockey, which gets in the way much more than it helps. The hockey programs have to answer to another authority, and the ECAC takes in more money from its highest money-maker than it gives back.

The ECAC higher-ups have to open their eyes and realize that hockey is the sport that butters its bread. It must give ultimate hockey power to an autonomous commissioner in order to keep up with the other leagues.

The system in place now is hurting hockey, plain and simple. And it does nothing to dispel the notion that the ECAC is college hockey’s black sheep.

So what does this all add up to?

It’s time for the schools of the ECAC to leave. Not just RPI, which has threatened to head to Hockey East on and off for 13 years. Or the same for Clarkson or Vermont.

No, the entire conference must leave as a whole. Form a conference outside of the structure of the ECAC. Everything else about the league stays the same, there’s no need for it to change. The time has come for this to happen.

The only thing preventing any of this from happening is the quality of human nature that naturally resists seemingly radical change. But is it really radical? How would anything be different except the name of the conference and who — or what — it answers to?

Unless there’s something I don’t know, it seems as easy as saying, “Let’s form a new conference, call it the Eastern Collegiate Hockey Association, and rubberstamp it.”

You get a pretty clear feeling the coaches would love it. They are tired of seeing a multi-headed bureaucratic monster getting in the way of the league’s advancement. They are tired of seeing the conference take in more money from hockey than it gives back. They are tired of being the black sheep. They are tired of not having their own say in matters of marketing, television and anything else that relates to the improvement of the conference in terms of its relation to the overall hockey community. Tired of a leadership that doesn’t know how to lead, and won’t let those who do, do so.

The ECAC is a dinosaur, and it doesn’t necessarily have to do with the people running it. An independent conference consisting of the exact same setup — scholarship rules, academic index and schedule — but without the bureaucratic ECAC cloud hanging over it, could be just what the doctor ordered.

Don’t think it hasn’t been considered. Unofficial discussions have gotten quite serious in this regard — but it’s hard to get too far.

If you want to get really radical, an even better scenario would have ECAC teams actually joining Hockey East. Just pick up and leave, en masse. Again, nothing really has to change, except that a commissioner would already be in place: Bertagna, working once again with all of his comrades from the ECAC. Same schedule, same everything, but just play in their own 12-team division under the Hockey East auspices.

C’mon Joe, make it happen. Do what’s best for college hockey.

But for now, root hard for Fanter. It does no good to wish him badly. Perhaps he can grow on the job, find his niche, and find a way to fend off that bureaucratic monster above him.

Can he do it? I don’t know. Despite all the questions brought up, it’s not fair to make that assessment. We’ll give him a shot and hope for the best — the ECAC deserves it. But if not, the ECAC could be left in the dust when college hockey makes the big leap that’s on the horizon.